Debate over minimum wage hike in Alberta heats up as consultations begin

CALGARY — John Batas, the owner of Michael’s Restaurant & Pizza in Calgary, is blunt in his assessment of the Alberta government’s plan to raise the hourly minimum wage by nearly four dollars in three years — which would make it the highest in Canada.

“I think going from what it is to $15 is ridiculous,” he says, adding that the move would result in higher prices and possibly fewer hours for staff or even layoffs.

“Our food costs are high already. Now you’re going to add our labour up high.”

His views foreshadow the criticism the province’s NDP government will face as it kicks off consultations this month with businesses and advocacy groups on how to increase the minimum wage, which now sits at $10.20, to $15 by 2018.

Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson is expected to announce next month what kind of wage hike will take effect in October.

Small business concerns about minimum wage increases are not new, but in Alberta they may be more pronounced than usual.

The increases come at a time when the province’s economy is grappling with low oil prices, and rising food costs is another factor that could exacerbate pressure on fast-food outlets, a sector that would feel the sting of minimum wage hikes more than others.

Amber Ruddy, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said she’s looking forward to speaking with Sigurdson and expressing the concern members have about rising wages.

“Entrepreneurs generate wealth, they take risks, and they make these upfront investments in their business,” Ruddy said. “Let’s not punish them by hiking up the wage cost.”

But not all businesses are worried.

Patty Nowlin, co-owner of the Sunnyside Natural Market in Calgary, says she’s been paying staff more than minimum wage for quite some time and its come with benefits.

“What we find is our retention is fantastic, so we save a lot of costs in interviewing, hiring,” says Nowlin. “And of course we have happy, engaged employees, which means really great customer service and good productivity.”

As of March, 2.2 per cent of Albertans made minimum wage compared with 7.6 per cent across Canada, according to the Alberta government.

But an estimated 383,900 workers, or 20.5 per cent of employed Albertans, earned less than $15 an hour based on July 2014 Statistics Canada numbers, meaning many in the province would see their wages increase if the government follows through on its minimum wage promise.

The move in Alberta would follow a trend in the United States, where cities including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles have already committed to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Seattle was one of the first to approve a minimum wage hike in mid-2014. The city has given businesses with more than 500 employees until 2017 to implement the raise, while small businesses have until at least 2019 to increase the pay.

The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour says he hopes the government doesn’t budge from its promise.

“We’ll be strongly advocating that the Alberta government stick with its original plan to implement the increase over a three-year period,” Gil McGowan said.

Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press

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